May 12 7:23 PM

Search engine results have power to swing votes, study says

A screen grab of a Google search of the Indian elections, May 12, 2014.

We’re already aware that Google knows everything about us, but it may also have the ability to influence who we vote for, according to new research released Monday.

A psychologist who wanted to examine how ranking order in search engine results was able to influence the opinions of undecided voters in India’s recent national elections found that — perhaps not surprisingly — the order played a large role in swaying their votes. And what’s more, the majority of the voters didn’t realize it was going on.

Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the California-based American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, a non-profit research group, recruited more than 2,000 undecided voters between the ages of 18 and 70 from 26 of India’s 28 states. The voters were allotted 15 minutes to read search engine results favoring one of the three Indian presidential candidates: Rahul Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal or Narendra Modi,

He and his team found that the search engine rankings favoring a particular candidate drove around 12 percent of the votes toward that candidate, which they said was enough to change the results of elections won by margins of up to 2.9 percent. They call this Search Engine Manipulation Effect.

“If two candidates were both trying to push their rankings higher, they would be competing, and that’s fine,” said Epstein in a release. “But if Google, which has a monopoly on search in India, were to favor one candidate, it could easily put that candidate in office by manipulating search rankings, and no one could counter what they were doing. Even if without human intervention the company’s search algorithm favored one candidate, thousands of votes would still be driven to that candidate.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that Internet users are most likely to click on the first result displayed by a search engine, so companies strive to optimize their positions in Internet search results so they’ll show up as high as possible.

Epstein also released findings last year (PDF) showing that voters’ preferences could be influenced toward a particular candidate by at least 15 percent based on search engine results, because users are more likely to click on the highest-ranked results.

“Of particular concern,” Epstein said, “is the fact that 99% of the people in our study seemed to be unaware that the search rankings they saw were biased.”

He added, “To prevent undue influence, election-related search rankings need to be regulated and monitored, as well as subjected to equal-time rules.”

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Any views expressed on The Scrutineer are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.


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